CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Charlotte had won, beating out St. Louis, Cleveland and Minneapolis to become host of the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
High-fives all around.
Then came the morning after: Mayor Anthony Foxx knew he had to find someone – and pronto – who could make this very big thing happen.
There was money to raise, staff to hire, contracts to sign, parties to plan, projects to launch, media to woo, volunteers to muster and – most of all – a city to be readied for its close-up on millions of screens around the globe.
“With a job like this, you’re really building an airplane while you’re flying it” is how Foxx describes the challenge today. “And you get one shot.”
To launch and then pilot this effort, the mayor needed someone with the steady hands of a surgeon.
So he called Dr. Dan Murrey – spine surgeon, former county commissioner, CEO of OrthoCarolina and, like Foxx, an alumnus of Davidson College.
That was more than a year ago. The clock that was ticking then is now clanging: Murrey and his 35-member staff at the Charlotte in 2012 host committee have less than 90 days until 35,000 people – including 6,000-plus delegates, 15,000 journalists, countless VIPs and who-knows-how-many protesters – land in the Queen City.
The Democratic National Convention Committee, headed by former Ted Kennedy aide Steve Kerrigan, is planning the actual convention: the proceedings inside Time Warner Cable Arena and, on the final night, at Bank of America Stadium.
But Murrey’s team is responsible for a host of other chores. The biggest: raising $36.6 million to fund the convention, propelling “legacy” projects that will benefit the city after the Democrats leave, staging elaborate parties welcoming delegates and press, telling Charlotte’s story and organizing the Labor Day kickoff – open to the public – at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
For the most part, Murrey – a 1992 graduate of both Harvard Medical School and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government – is getting good marks for his calm and methodical handling of a job that Foxx says “is a 10 out of 10 in degree of difficulty.”
“I’m glad we selected someone with Dan’s IQ,” says Michael Smith, president and CEO of Center City Partners. “He’s creating an organization that has to collaborate with every existing system in Charlotte.”
There have been some complaints. Former Charlotte City Council member Edwin Peacock, a Republican, says he’s a Murrey fan. But he argues, along with others, that Murrey and the DNCC have been unnecessarily tight-lipped about the process – refusing, for example, to say how far along the host committee is in raising that $36.6 million.
“It’s so unlike Dan to not be more transparent,” said Peacock.
Murrey and Kerrigan both give the same answer – some say non-answer – when asked how much money the host committee has raised.
“Right on track” is their default response.
Murrey hasn’t operated on any spines since he became the host committee’s executive director. But he has tapped into other skills that attracted Foxx and will continue to come in handy in the months leading up to Charlotte’s historic week.
‘Ultimate special project’
A fiscally moderate Democrat with a history of building bridges to Republicans, Murrey has been able to work with both party activists focused on getting President Barack Obama re-elected and local corporate leaders, many of them Republican, who want to snatch the spotlight for Charlotte.
That’s a difficult balancing act.
“It’s a job where he has to be very sensitive to Democratic Party constituencies, but at the same time get businesses to help with the parties. I think he’s done very well,” says former Gov. Jim Martin, a Republican. Drawing on his experience as a CEO – on leave from OrthoCarolina, a Charlotte-based orthopedic practice with more than 900 employees – Murrey knew how to start, staff and run a new business, one responsible for officially welcoming September’s visitors and making sure the city shines.
“It’s the ultimate special project,” says Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers, who co-chairs the host committee with Foxx. “Dan is pulling people together – some are volunteers, some are paid – to throw a party for three days. But, while we’re throwing the party, he’s also making sure everything is working, down to the traffic patterns.”
And as a Tennessee farm boy who moved his family to Charlotte in 1997 to make a life and a career, he’s become expert at pitching the story – told over the last year to outside reporters and would-be donors – of a city that embraces transplants and responds to economic sea-changes by reinventing itself with the help of those newcomers.
“This is a place where people have come and felt like they can really make a difference in the community,” says Murrey.
Murrey’s willingness to give back to a city in which he’s done well has also impressed some old-line Charlotteans.
When Cammie Harris – grandson of an N.C. governor – heard that Foxx was talking to Murrey about the host committee post, “I called up Anthony and said, ‘What are you doing? He’s going to be in surgery all the time.’”
Told that Murrey was taking a year-plus leave of absence from OrthoCarolina, “that changed my tune,” says businessman Harris, who has agreed to raise $1 million for the host committee.
‘What makes people tick’
Murrey hails from Pulaski, Tenn. – population 7,500.
Growing up on a farm, he fed cattle, hauled hay, built a barn with brother Mark and, he says, “did my first surgery … turning bulls into steers.”
But it was going on rounds with his father, a family doctor, that made young Murrey decide on a medical career. When he followed his brother to Davidson, though, he decided to major in religion, not the sciences.
“If you look at all my studies, I’ve tried to figure out what makes people tick,” he explains. “Everybody has strong feelings about religion, even if they’re atheist.”
An Eagle Scout and National Youth of the Year Award winner, Murrey continued to achieve at Davidson. As a Stuart Scholar, Murrey sometimes met with mentors, including banker Joe Martin. Martin asked his brother, then-U.S. Rep. Jim Martin, what to tell young Murrey.
“Joe had asked me how to advise this freshman out of Tennessee who wanted to be a medical doctor but wanted to major in religion,” Jim Martin remembers. “I said it was pretty simple: Tell him to be Phi Beta Kappa. That’ll get him in a good medical school. Well, he did, but then graduated magna cum laude, which is a notch above (the exclusive academic fraternity).”
That was good enough for Harvard.
Service with solutions
Murrey says Davidson also gave him something that would stay with him: “There’s a sense of obligation (there) toward serving your community.”
Though Murrey had grown up in a Republican household, he would end up serving as a Democrat.
After settling in Charlotte, the city’s business community took notice in 2005 when Murrey engineered a merger that formed OrthoCarolina. By 2008, Murrey was CEO.
“That’s a big business and it gave him the skill set to think big, administer well and recruit,” says Republican city councilman Andy Dulin, who sits on the host committee’s advisory steering group.
Also in 2008, Murrey – a first-time candidate – won an at-large seat on Mecklenburg’s board of county commissioners.
He proved adept at raising campaign money and trail-blazed some fresh ideas. An uptown farmer’s market, for example, and a plan to streamline health services. And commissioners of both parties appreciated his even-keeled demeanor and eagerness to dig into the policy details.
But Murrey was a little too quiet when it came to promoting himself and his accomplishments to voters. In 2010, he lost his re-election bid.
“When he rolled off the board, we really missed his medical expertise,” says Democrat Jennifer Roberts, who chaired the board. “We’re still carrying forward a lot of his ideas, but having his intellect and energy would have moved them more quickly.”
Murrey feels he had an impact, especially on health care. But he says it was hard to keep his name before a county that had grown to almost a million people.
“I’m probably just not a good politician,” he concluded.
A few months after his loss came Foxx’s call.
A fundraising ‘bear’
The Charlotte host committee’s uptown offices are bustling these days, with streams of volunteers, interns and staffers.
Quite a contrast, in other words, from when Murrey started on the job in May 2011. He was the committee’s first employee. And wife Katie was the first volunteer.
Mary Tribble, who now heads the host committee’s events planning division, was one of the first people hired. She remembers stopping by the offices early on: “It was empty – a couple of finance people and crickets.”
These days, 12 of the 35 staffers spend their time trying to raise money.
Murrey, too, is on the phone nearly every day, pushing packages for up to $100,000 per person that can bring the donor such perks as hotel rooms, VIP receptions and credentials.
Murrey hits the road a few times a month. While Foxx and Rogers have shown up with Obama at fundraisers in New York and California, Murrey has worked groups in San Diego, Atlanta, Birmingham, Chicago and Washington.
“These conventions are a bear, an incredibly uphill climb,” says Democrat Ken Eudy, CEO of a Raleigh-based marketing firm. Among other things, he says, the political climate is “so polarized that a business leader who might otherwise be interested in (personally) supporting a political convention might think twice about supporting this convention.”
The host committee needs to come up with the $36.6 million to fund the convention, but also another pot of cash – likely totaling at least $15 million – to pay for the parties and other things.
This latter amount – dubbed the New American City Fund – can accept corporate contributions. But, because the president wants the Charlotte gathering to be a “people’s convention,” the master contract with the DNCC says the host committee cannot use any cash from businesses or lobbyists to pay for the actual convention.
These first-ever restrictions, paired with a pledge to promote the Charlotte region and make this “the most open and accessible” convention ever, has led the host committee to come up with innovative ways to raise what might be called grassroots cash.
Brainstorming sessions by host committee staffers, Murrey says, produced the idea of getting a “Powered by the American People” stock car. The committee then recruited legendary NASCAR racing promoter H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler to invite people to donate $5 apiece to get their names stenciled on the car. More than 3,500 people responded.
Murrey’s staff is just one of the teams he plays for as convention week approaches.
Most Thursdays at 2 p.m., he and Foxx, Rogers, Kerrigan and former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt convene. The talk can turn to anything, including what Rogers calls “incoming missiles.”
Last month, for example, thousands of angry Democrats signed an online petition that called for yanking the convention out of Charlotte after N.C. voters passed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
All week, Murrey and Kerrigan work closely together and say they understand each other’s different roles: Kerrigan’s focus is boosting President Obama, especially in the battleground state of North Carolina. Murrey’s is officially nonpartisan: spotlighting Charlotte.
“The most important thing in his job is making sure you realize the huge benefits that this convention can have for Charlotte and this region,” says Kerrigan, who was chief of staff for the committee that hosted the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston.
For starters, those benefits include the estimated $150 million Charlotte area businesses could make from all the convention-related spending.
More long term, leaders hope that all the international media exposure – Fortune magazine just did a major positive profile of Charlotte – will bring to town more businesses, more tourists, more transplants and even bigger events.
Atlanta hosted the Democrats in 1988, and by 1996 the city was the site of the Summer Olympics.
“We tend to dream big here in Charlotte,” Murrey says.
Staying on task
An aerial photo of uptown Charlotte hangs in Murrey’s office. Come early September, that compact strip of land will be America’s political center of gravity.
To be ready will test Murrey’s reputation as a devotee of detail.
“People have a vision of how things are going to fall into place,” he says. “But it’s a matter of making sure they all stay on track.”
Up at 5:30 a.m. to exercise, Murrey is on the job early, in staff meetings, on the phone with potential donors, or standing before another microphone.
Despite all the pressure on him to make sure things go right, Tribble says she’s never heard him raise his voice.
“If Dan wakes up in cold sweats, he doesn’t show it,” she says.
In fact, though he holds his staffers accountable, Tribble says he’s also aware of the stress.
She recalls the day when Murrey called in everybody. He opened a sack of potatoes, passed around plastic “potato guns” and invited all to blow off steam by shooting each other with BB-sized pieces of spud.
“It can be helpful to have someone who can calm the room,” Murrey says, “and see the way forward.”
No, Murrey’s wife says, he doesn’t throw things when he gets home. Most nights, Murrey – a consummate cook – whips up something to eat for her and the children. The family watches “Top Chef” or “Modern Family.” On Saturdays, Murrey still likes to visit farmers’ markets.
On the job, he says he stays motivated by the example of past Charlotteans who pitched in when the city needed them.
“As I often say when I’m out speaking,” he says, “Charlotte is a place were people come to do well but they’re also expected to do good.”
He still remembers weighing the pros and cons when he got Foxx’s call last year. In the “yes” column, he says, was the chance to work on something that had the potential to be a historic milestone for Charlotte.
The top negative was the unknown. He visited with city leaders, asking them “what they would like to be able to say on September 8, when this is all said and done.”
Their answers help Murrey keep his focus as the days grow more hectic.
And speaking of that, where does he expect to be during convention week?
“Everywhere,” he says, smiling.
Maybe Murrey will even run into the president, who picked Charlotte to host this big party.
Murrey met candidate Obama in 2008, but still hasn’t shaken hands with President Obama.
Says Murrey: “I suspect our paths will cross during the convention.”